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During the past two weeks, Billings has played host to a high-stakes courtroom debate over how Montanans can and can’t register to vote and cast their ballots. Whether that dispute will be resolved in time for the November election remains unclear. Even the judge in the case says he doesn’t know. But after observing the proceedings, I can tell you two things:

First, watching a Zoom screen for the better part of eight hours a day really messes with your eyes. And second, election administration is one of the biggest political issues playing out in the state of Montana right now.

I’ve been writing about the laws disputed in this case since their inception in the 2021 Legislature. And I think one of the most important benefits of journalism is its ability to apply a watchful eye over time and connect the dots between key events. A bill gets introduced to end Election Day voter registration? Got it. That bill gets signed into law? Start typing. That law gets challenged in three lawsuits? My cue to start asking about the whys and hows.

Something interesting happened during the trial on Tuesday. A new connection emerged. On the witness stand, Rep. Geraldine Custer, a Republican from Forsyth, began addressing the issue of baseless accusations of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. She said she couldn’t in her “wildest dreams” believe such allegations are true, especially in Montana.

Beyond my coverage of the lawsuit, I’ve spent nearly 18 months following those fraud allegations. It began with one Republican lawmaker’s testimony on the House floor in March, when he alluded to irregularities in Missoula County’s 2020 election results to justify a change to election administration laws. Since then, a movement has emerged that relies on fraught theories of election insecurity to argue for even bigger alterations to our voting landscape. Many of that movement’s members are motivated by a firm belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump.

Until Tuesday, these two avenues of coverage — a major election administration lawsuit and a pervasive voter fraud narrative — remained publicly unconnected. I’d long suspected there was some relationship. Instinct and experience tells me that public perception, however small or isolated the group that holds it might be, has a ripple effect. As more witnesses took the stand this week and faced questions about that narrative, the dots connected. Trump’s “Big Lie” may or may not have directly inspired the laws that now await the decision of a Billings judge. But the louder the chorus of fraud becomes, the more we’ll see it appear in the arguments favoring these and future changes.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Campaign funds that Montana Supreme Court candidates Ingrid Gustafson and James Brown have collectively raised as of Aug. 15, 2022, with Gustafson accounting for $253,000 of that sum. For comparison: By the end of the same reporting period in the 2016 state Supreme Court race between now-Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras and Supreme Court Justice Dirk Sandefur, the candidates had collectively raised about $225,000, with Sandefur accounting for nearly that entire total.

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

Wildlife Watch 🪶

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission voted on Thursday to greenlight Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ controversial pen-raised pheasant programthrough 2026.

State lawmakers last year passed House Bill 637, which authorized FWP to spend $1 million annually to stock up to 50,000 ring-necked pheasants. FWP purchases young birds, inmates at the Montana State Prison raise them, and FWP releases them onto state-owned lands in the fall to encourage the recruitment of young hunters.

During its first year, the program produced only 15,000 birds, but FWP Special Projects Director Deb O’Neill said she anticipates bringing that number up to 50,000.

FWP received pushback on the proposal, with members of the public raising concerns about pen-raised birds succumbing to — and spreading — avian influenza, questioning the program’s ability to inspire new generations of hunters, and suggesting the funding would be better spent toward habitat conservation to support wild pheasant populations in the state.

O’Neill told commissioners there are safeguards in place to keep avian influenza at bay and that none of the program’s birds have tested positive to date. She also cited reports of “kids smiling ear-to-ear” during last year’s youth season opener and said inmates participating in the program are “crazy about it.”

During discussion of the measure, Commissioner Pat Byorth argued that while the commission cannot reallocate funding for the pheasant program, it’s not required to continue it.

“We are not bound by statute to spend that money — we’re bound to consider whether or not we want to spend that money,” Byorth said. “I’m opposed to this because of the slippery slope of creating the impression that stocking hatchery-reared pheasants or trout is a way to sustain our hunting heritage in Montana. We are one of the only states that relies almost strictly on wildlife in wild places, and I don’t want to see us turn away from [that].”

Commissioners Brian Cebull and K.C. Walsh asked FWP to produce an annual report on the program to ensure it’s getting an adequate return on its investment. That reporting requirement was incorporated into the motion, which passed 6-1. Byorth was the lone dissenting vote.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

The Viz 📈

There’s a theory I hear often while reporting stories on Montana’s population growth: That many of the new arrivals flooding into the state are making their relocation decisions based on political identity — conservative arrivals flocking to reliably red areas where they can find neighbors with shared values, and liberals gravitating to the state’s blue urban cores.

So while looking at political data for a work-in-progress story on the state’s ongoing legislative redistricting process, I thought I’d throw together a quick chart aimed at testing that notion by evaluating whether Montana’s most partisan state House districts have in fact boomed with new arrivals over the past decade.

Since my editor is fond of telling me that scatterplots like this one can be confusing to anyone who doesn’t spend a bunch of time looking at data visualizations, let me explain what’s going on here.

Each dot represents one of Montana’s 100 state House districts, the ones we use to elect legislators to the Montana House of Representatives.

Each district’s placement on the vertical axis represents how much that district grew on a percentage basis between the 2010 and 2020 censuses. For example, the light blue dot at the top of the chart, House District 65, represents the slice of northwest Bozeman that added 7,990 people over that decade, a growth rate of 81%. Most other districts, clustered lower on the chart, saw comparatively modest growth of 20% or less.

Each district’s placement left to right, as well as its color, represents how its voters have tended to vote in recent statewide elections. To calculate that partisan lean score, I’ve averaged the results from the 10 races the state redistricting commission is using to decide whether new districts it’s debating count as “competitive.” Districts toward the left side of this chart (the bluer ones) have leaned more Democratic, while districts toward the right (colored redder) have leaned more Republican.

As it turns out, though, neither the bluest nor the reddest districts saw the greatest population growth over the last decade. Instead, much of the state’s growth happened in comparatively moderate suburban districts on the outskirts of Bozeman, Missoula and Billings.

Some caveats: Firstly, the population shifts captured here, representing the decade ending in April 2020, mostly represent trends that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since part of the migration theory I hear is about many new arrivals being people who wanted to escape states that maintained stricter public health restrictions, that’s an important piece of the puzzle that’s missing here.

Secondly, this data doesn’t do anything to answer one of the biggest questions about the state’s population growth: how new arrivals are changing Montana’s politics. The partisan lean number plotted here is a snapshot stat reflecting a relatively small number of races between 2016 and 2020. As such, it unfortunately doesn’t provide any insight about whether these districts are becoming redder, bluer or purpler as a result of their growth.

Even so, I do think this provides a useful data point for anyone trying to wrap their head around what growth means for Montana’s political culture. (Also, I should thank the folks who weighed in after I shared an earlier version of this graphic on Twitter this week — those comments and questions very much helped me hone my thinking here.)

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

Viewshed 🌄

Credit: Archival family photo courtesy of The Wilderness Society

In 1962, Cecil Garland (right) and other Lincoln residents formed the Lincoln Backcountry Protective Association to advocate for a wilderness designation to protect more than 200,000 acres of roadless areas that adjoined the Bob Marshall Wilderness. On Aug. 20,1972 — 50 years ago this week — Congress passed Public Law 92-395, and the Scapegoat Wilderness became the first successful citizen-led wilderness initiative in the country. 

Next month, advocates for the Lincoln Prosperity Proposal, which would expand the Scapegoat Wilderness alongside a suite of other natural resource and recreation-oriented land-use changes, will gather in Lincoln to bolster support for the proposal and recognize the Scapegoat Wilderness’ 50th anniversary with live music, science talks, hikes, exhibitions and the premiere of the film “Scapegoat.”

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Campaign Dispatch 

One of more than a dozen ethics probes into Republican U.S. House candidate Ryan Zinke’s tenure as Secretary of the Interior reached its end and shared its findings this week, concluding that Zinke, who is currently running for the state’s western congressional district, misled federal investigators about meeting with lobbyists, consultants and other parties opposed to a tribal casino deal the department was considering in 2017.

The investigation commenced under Trump-appointed Inspector General Mark Greenblatt. Attorneys for Zinke trashed the findings in responses to the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General, but nonetheless asked that the agency wait to release the report until after the November election, calling the report’s timing “disturbing and improper.”

“To the extent that any report is to be issued, it must be made after the election,” Zinke’s attorneys wrote. “To do otherwise, would insert the findings of this stale and inaccurate investigative report into the electoral process and could prejudice Secretary Zinke.”

Zinke’s attorneys took issue with the fact that the probe’s report wasn’t released until several years after it was initiated. The Department of the Interior responded that investigators’ hands were tied during a three-year period during which the Department of Justice was weighing whether it would get involved, and the report was eventually released after investigators completed their work and interested parties — including Zinke’s lawyers — had the chance to review the findings. The Justice Department declined prosecution last year. 

Monica Tranel, a Democratic attorney and Zinke’s main opponent in the U.S. House race, quickly pounced on the report. 

“Based on his actions, it’s clear we can’t trust Ryan Zinke,” Tranel said in a statement. 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

Public Comment 🗣️

This week, legal staff at the state Department of Public Health and Human Services heard public testimony about a proposed rule to broaden religious exemptions for vaccinations required by childcare and daycare centers. The rule change would also nix vaccine requirements for childcare staff and volunteers and roll back documentation requirements for employee vaccination records. The rule would apply to a range of standard and recommended childhood vaccinations against polio, measles, diphtheria and other diseases.

The health department will continue accepting public comment on the proposed rule until 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 2. You can participate by emailing; faxing (406) 444-9744 or sending letters to:

Kassie Thompson
Department of Public Health and Human Services, Office of Legal Affairs
P.O. Box 4210 
Helena, Montana

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda — Helena IR reporter Tom Kuglin’s story on a lawsuit accusing four members of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission of circumventing open meeting laws by discussing issues before the commission via email is an eye-opening read. Given that some of the measures the commission passed are in the process of being replaced with new regulations, it’s unclear what kind of recourse might be available to the group, Wolves of the Rockies, that filed the suit.

Alex — President Joe Biden’s bombshell news this week about canceling student loan debt for millions of Americans sent shockwaves into the 2022 midterm election field, and the New York Times got into the wildly divided reactions among Democratic candidates across the country.

Arren — MTFP hasn’t covered much of the fallout of the Jan. 6, 2021 riots in the U.S. Capitol, but I’ve been keeping an eye on the case of two East Helena brothers facing nine felony charges for their actions that day. According to the Helena Independent Record, the brothers, Joshua and Jerod Hughes, pleaded guilty this week to charges of obstructing an official proceeding, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Eric — One option you hear thrown around a lot in discussions about rural broadband service is Elon Musk’s Starlink, which provides satellite-based connectivity as an alternative to wired connections. Here’s a solid piece from MinnPost explaining the pros and cons as they’re perceived by folks thinking about broadband access.

Mara — When news broke this week about President Biden forgiving up to $20,000 in student loans per borrower, I had a lot of questions. This summary and Q&A was among the most digestible and comprehensive I found on the wide, vast Internet. As you dig into the weeds of the policy, don’t hesitate to reach out and let us know how this debt forgiveness impacts you.

*Some articles may be behind a paywall.